Mal Fletcher comments

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

'The story of [the Holocaust] survivors,' wrote sociologist William Helmreich, 'is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.'

The same might be said, albeit in a very different context, of the 33 hardy Chilean miners who emerged from Hades this week. It may not quite match the sheer hold-your-breath daring of, say, the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but the rescue of these Chileans - and one Bolivian - will live long in our collective memory as one of humanity's most daring feats.

Their rescue, of course, would not have been possible without their own extraordinary demonstrations of resilience and courage. Above all else this is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.

In an age where we're prone to react with a passive 'ho-hum' to things that would have seemed awe-inspiring a generation ago - our technology, for example - this story reminds us that our greatest resource is to be found within us and in those around us.

After spending more than two months in a rabbit hole half a mile underground, each of these men has now emerged to a hero's welcome. The sense of triumph they embody is shared not just by their countrymen but by people of every tribe and nation.

Before now, perhaps the closest we'd come to this sense of global nail-biting was the equally unlikely rescue of three astronauts aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Tom Hanks turned this into a memorable movie, but no amount of Hollywood magic could match the real-life drama.

I was in my first years at high school when Apollo 13 was forced to abort its moon mission. Yet I still remember the nerve-jangling waiting game as Houston spent six days trying to save three souls from drifting into space.

Had they not been saved, Lovett, Swigert and Haise would have suffocated in the airless and freezing conditions before flying on endlessly into oblivion. That thought alone gripped the imagination; it kept people glued to TV sets and radios.

President Nixon called the first moon landing the single moment in human history where all of humanity came together as one. Apollo 13 provided the same effect. It lacked the larky moonwalks, or the goofing for the camera with a tiny planet earth peering over the horizon in the background. Yet when its crew returned safely to earth, the sense of triumph and relief was just as real.

Glorious failures like the Apollo 13 mission often move us in more potent ways than our collective successes. In literature and drama as is in life, nothing packs more emotional punch than romance, and nothing is more romantic than pathos.

Near failures like the Apollo 13 mission and the Chilean mine collapse also remind us of a truth which will be important to our survival. There's a fine line between human greatness and disaster and, despite our technological sophistication, it's a line that often only Providence can draw.

At times, the best we can do is to acknowledge with humility our limitations, then pull together in the determined hope that we might just snatch triumph from defeat. It's in those moments that we're most likely to see the truth of the Japanese proverb: 'adversity makes a jewel of you.'

Only time will tell how their experience will shape each of the individual miners who emerged from the aptly named Phoenix rescue pod into the similarly well-branded Camp Hope.

Hollywood producers are reportedly already signing stars to play in movie epics based on the Atacama desert drama. James Cameron won't be required to direct, of course; the human drama will sell itself, without help from the CGI or 3D boffins.